The Cannes Film Festival is in full swing and at least two distributors are bowing their Cannes cache this weekend. Zeitgeist Films is debuting Elena in the U.S. The film won awards in Cannes and elsewhere before its long (and somewhat bizarre) road to the screen. Sundance Selects, meanwhile will roll out French César and Cannes winner Polisse in theaters and day-and-date VOD using some of its past offerings as a distribution template. Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s directorial debut Virginia opens in limited release and documentary Never Stand Still starts its rollout in New York before heading to other cities.
Director Andrei Zvyagintsev
Writer: Oleg Negin
Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Aleksey Rozin
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Elena started as an English-language project spearheaded by a British producer who had an idea for a film about the Apocalypse. Four directors from four continents were attached, with Zvyagintsev set to represent Europe, but the project fell through. The director didn’t want to give up and pitched it to a number of Russian producers who declined, but finally met producer Alexander Rodnyansky. “It took me one night to read the script, call him back and say that I am ready to produce and finance it,” said Rodnyansky told Deadline. “It has been a very rewarding experience both from the creative and financial points of view.”
With Russian financing set and a Russian-language script, Zvyagintsev cast relative newcomer Nadezhda Markina as the lead, which was a risk. “She’s not a celebrity so to speak,” said Rodnyansky. “In fact, her filmography list is rather short — some minor roles in a few films or TV series.” But the choice turned out well, Rodnyansky said, praising her “nuanced” and “multi-dimensional” approach to the role, which also garnered her some acting nods including the Durban International Film Festival and the Festival Nouveau Cinema Montreal. Also in the cast is Andrey Smirnov, a big name in Russia, having directing some Soviet-era classics. Forced to take a hiatus from filmmaking, he took up acting and appeared in Elena, though even that almost come together due to a conflict with his own return behind the camera after a nearly three decade absence. After a latenight persuasion session aided by a bottle of Calvados, Zvyagintsev along with his wife and son convinced the director/actor to stay on board. “They managed to arrange a special shooting schedule for Smirnov so that he could have fewer shooting days and not to have a long break in his editing,” noted Rodnyansky.
Elena won the Cannes Un Certain Regard prize in 2011 in addition to other prizes around the world. Film Forum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Zeitgeist have collaborated to bring the filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev from Moscow to New York City for press, with BAM arranging a one-time screening of the director’s previous work The Return in addition to Film Forum’s two-week run for Elena. He will appear at Tuesday night BAM show and the Wednesday night screening at Film Forum. Zeitgeist will then bow the film at the Nuart in Los Angeles May 25th followed by 50-plus major markets during the film’s expected four-month theatrical cycle.
Ron Honsa first explored the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the early ’80s in The Men Who Danced. As the 75th anniversary of Jacob’s Pillow approached, Honsa decided to return and filmed over several seasons, the result is Never Stand Still. “I have my own production company [Moving Pictures] so we initially made a trailer and we used that to fundraise and were fortunate to find believers that decided to support the effort, including foundations and many individuals,” said Honsa. “However we still had to take a year off to fundraise between production and the editorial phase of the film.”
Beyond the financing phase, which Honsa described as “long and challenging,” the film hit the festival circuit at home and abroad over the past year. Being a dance documentary, it’s not surprising it hit events that play to that audience. Never Stand Still won Best Documentary at Dance Camera West and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival. First Run picked up the film and the distributor will open the film at the Quad Cinema in New York and it’s currently slated for release in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. Honsa said they use famed dance impresario Mark Morris’ comments about the film in their marketing, “It may not be for everyone, but it is for anyone.” Added Honsa, “Our intention was to make a dance documentary that would be appealing to dance enthusiasts, as well as a general audience.”
Competing in competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Polisse nabbed a jury prize and eventually U.S. distribution via IFC Films’ Sundance Selects. Polisse “screened at Cannes last year and electrified the audience for its authentic depiction of the Parisian police’s child protection unit,” said IFC Films exec Ryan Werner. “We knew it was something that would stand out and a genre American audiences were likely to connect with even if the situations were French.” Drawing comparisons to The Wire, the film was a big hit in France, picking up 13 César nominations and two wins last year. “We are hoping it can connect with American audiences,” added Werner.
“The film will be released day-and-date [VOD] like another Cannes success we did Gomorrah, which performed extremely well. We are selling the film’s energy and excitement as well as the fact that it’s a [police film] that has also drawn comparisons to Sidney Lumet’s gritty style and The Wire‘s structure,” he said. “We are selling it to the edgier arthouse crowd and have been screening it at Tribeca, San Francisco and Boston Independent film festivals.” Werner added that papers in those cities sited Polisse as one of their respective festivals’ “standouts.” Werner likened Polisse‘s roll out with their past “edgier Cannes releases” like 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days as well as Gomorrah.
Dustin Lance Black wrote Sean Penn starrer Milk and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and later penned the script for J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood. Now his directorial debut will hit theaters, but the film, originally titled What’s Wrong With Virginia, actually began as a project long ago. “Eight years ago, I pressed ‘save’ on the first draft of Virginia,” Black told Deadline. “Five years ago I met Jennifer Connelly at the Bowery Hotel restaurant and she signed on.” The project came to a halt as Milk hit theaters, made headlines and won Oscar glory. In that time, Black became an icon amongst the gay community and a player in the screenwriting world.
The Virginia shoot itself posed a threat from the elements when temperatures plummeted unexpectedly, and Connelly had to make believe she was in a warmer climate. “After scouting west Michigan as a [location substituting] for Virginia Beach during the summery warmth of June, we came back in September to shoot and we were met with the coldest fall in [that area's] history,” said Black. “There wasn’t a day without rain or sleet and Jennifer Connelly had to brave night shoots in summer dresses with temperatures often dipping below 30 degrees.”
And What’s Wrong With Virginia had a bit of a cold reception at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival where it premiered, which prompted Black to revisit the editing room. “One year ago, I re-cut the film and re-named it Virginia after stumbling in Toronto,” he said. “And now here we are eight years later and coming out in theaters.” Entertainment One will open Virginia in a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles with an expansion thereafter.